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Ursinus: Why Good Works are to be done, or why are they Necessary?

Explaining Question and Answer 91 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharius Ursinus explains why, if we are justified by faith in Christ’s works, we should then also do good works. More than just “should,” he explains why the Reformed maintain that good works are indeed “necessary.” Thus, his question is framed “Why good works are to be done, or why are they necessary?” This can be found on pgs. 482-485 of his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Ursinus answers this question by breaking it down into three subpoints. Good works are to be done “in respect to God,” “on our own account,” and “for the sake of our neighbor.” We do good works “in respect to God” in order to give Him glory, “render unto god the obedience which he requires, or on account of the command of God,” and as an expression of our gratitude. We perform good works for the sake of our neighbor in order to edify them, avoid scandal, and “win the unbelieving to Christ.”

In the second point, however, Ursinus states that we do good works “on our own account.” This is the lengthiest section, and he lists seven reasons. They are as follows:

1. That we may thereby testify our faith, and be assured of its existence in us by the fruits which we produce in our lives. “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit.” “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, unto the praise and glory of God.” ” Faith without works is dead.” (Matt. 7: 17. Phil. 1: 11. James 2: 17.) It is by our good works, therefore, that we know that we possess true faith, because the effect is not without its own proper cause, which is always known by its effect; so that if wee are destitute of good works and new obedience, we are hypocrites, and have an evil conscience instead of true faith; for true faith (which is never wanting in all the fruits which are peculiar to it,) as a fruitful tree produces good works, obedience and repentance; which fruits distinguish true faith from that faith which is merely historical and temporary, as well as from hypocrisy itself.

2. That we may be assured of the fact that we have obtained the forgiveness of sins through Christ, and that we are justified for his sake. Justification and regeneration are benefits which are connected and knit together in such a way as never to be separated from each other. Christ obtained both for us at the same time, viz : the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit, who through faith excites in us the desire of good works and new obedience.

3. That we may be assured of our election and salvation. “Give diligence to make your calling and election sure.” (2 Pet. 1: 10.) This cause naturally grows out of the preceding one ; for God out of his mercy chose from everlasting only those who are justified on account of the merit of his Son. “Whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified.” (Rom. 8: 80.) We are, therefore, assured of our election by our justification ; and that we are justified in Christ, (which benefit is never granted unto the elect without sanctification,) we know from faith; of which we are, again, assured by the fruits of faith, which are good works, new obedience and true repentance.

4. That our faith may be exercised, nourished, strengthened and increased by good works. Those who indulge in unclean lusts and desires against their consciences cannot have faith, and so are destitute of a good conscience and of confidence in God as reconciled and gracious; for it is only by faith that we obtain a sense of the divine favor towards us and a good conscience. “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.” “I put thee in remembrance, that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee.” (Rom. 8: 13. 2 Tim. 1: 6.)

5. That we may adorn and commend our profession, life and calling by our good works. “I beseech you, that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called.” (Eph. 4: 1.)

6. That we may escape temporal and eternal punishment. “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.” “If ye live after the flesh ye shall die.” “Thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity.” (Matt. 7: 19. Rom. 8: 13. Ps. 39:11.)

7. That we may obtain from God those temporal and spiritual rewards, which, according to the divine promise, accompany good works both in this and in a future life. “Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” (1 Tim. 4: 8.) And if God did not desire that the hope of reward, and the fear of punishment should be moving causes of good works, he would not use them as arguments in the promises and threatenings which he addresses unto us in his word.

(Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pgs. 483-484)

Here we see that good works testify to our faith, give us assurance of our forgiveness and free justification, give us assurance of our election, strengthen and increase our faith, and properly adorn and commend our profession. While good works playing a role in our assurance might be seen as controversial to some of the more Lutheran or neo-Orthodox schools of thought, it is not controversial among the Reformed (see Richard Muller’s recent discussion of the “practical syllogism” in his Calvin and the Reformed Tradition pgs. 244-276). But Ursinus’ final two points may strike some readers as controversial. He maintains that good works are done “that we may escape temporal and eternal punishment” and “that we may obtain from God… temporal and spiritual rewards…” Ursinus adds that “the hope of reward and the fear of punishment” are “moving causes of good works.”

These points, then, bring Ursinus to the more pointed question of “whether good works are necessary to salvation.” He has an extended discussion of this question, found on pgs. 484 and 485. Admittedly, he does not like the language. He says that some “have maintained simply and positively, that good works are necessary to salvation,” whereas others have reacted against them saying, “they are pernicious and injurious to salvation.” Ursinus dislikes both, “especially the latter.” Indeed, the view that sees connecting good works to salvation as “injurious” is the worse error “because it seems not only to condemn confidence, but also the desire of performing good works. It is, therefore, to be rejected.”

But Ursinus does not simply clear or vindicate (apologies for the irony) the former statement, that good works are necessary to salvation in a simple positive way. No, he says that this must be carefully explained: “good works are necessary to salvation, not as a cause to an effect, or as if they merited a reward, but as a part of salvation itself, or as an antecedent to a consequent, or as a means without which we cannot obtain the end.” Ursinus repeats this explanation at least two more times in this section. He also uses the same language for justification, but with a modification. “In the same way we may also say, that good works are necessary to righteousness or justification, or in them that are to be justified, viz: as a consequence of justification, with which regeneration is inseparably connected” (pg. 485).

When we read this explanation, we start to see the same logic that allows for works to be a marker of assurance and true faith also allows works to be a necessity for salvation– they demonstrate that the believer has been regenerated. They are a means to an end and an antecedent to a consequent, but they are neither causes to an effect nor merit to a reward.

It is interesting to focus on Ursinus’ language of “antecendent” and “consequence” here. He clearly says good works are “antecedent” for “salvation.” He also says that they are a “consequence” of justification. But he connects these two thoughts closely, using the expression “in the same way.” Works are necessary for both, and thus “in the same way” they are necessary, but they are necessary, it seems, in different ways. They are antecedents for salvation, considered fully and as a whole, and consequences of justification proper. The link is that where justification is, regeneration also is and vice versa.

With regards to the language of meriting a reward, we also see a new distinction. Ursinus has affirmed that good works are done for the purpose of rewards, but they do not merit these rewards. That discussion is taken up in the next subchapter, part Vi., found on pgs. 485-488. He says that our good works are themselves a fruit of grace and thus God is adding rewards to His own grace. “Yet God commands us to perform good works, and promises a gracious reward to those who do them, as a father promises rewards to his children” (pg. 488).

For all of the distinctions given, modern readers might still wonder if this is truly “precise.” Ursinus takes language that we find very similar and sets them in opposition to one another–a means to an end but not a cause to an effect, for example. Later Reformed theologians would explain the logic of these distinctions in varying ways, and it’s worth noting that men like Turretin and Witsius have no problem listing examples from among “our divines” with whom they nevertheless disagree. This tradition of acknowledging a certain breadth of diversity and then choosing a preferred option within that diversity continued into the 19th and early 20th century and is seen in men like Robert Dabney and Geerhardus Vos.

Still, we might say that the forest is clearer than the trees. Ursinus says that our good works are not causes or meritorious grounds of salvation but they are logical antecedents to it, for they must be done in order for our salvation to be complete. Our good works prove that we have true faith and that we have been regenerated, and therefore they also prove that we have been justified. If we are justified, then we are also regenerated, for both “are connected and knit together in such a way as never to be separated from each other. Christ obtained both for us at the same time.” Our good works prove that Christ has obtained both justification and regeneration for us. Since this is the case, our motivation for doing good works may legitimately include the desire to escape temporal and eternal punishment and to obtain temporal and spiritual rewards. It follows from this that preachers may hold out the threat of punishment and the promise of rewards as motivations  for their people to do good works, though a properly balanced preacher would not make this the only or even primary motivation.

It would be interesting to inquire about the “temporal” blessings and punishments that Ursinus has in mind. He does not explain them further here, even though he was sure to include them in the list. We could also explore the negative scenario, what a person is to believe if they have no good works, but that will require a proper discussion all its own and must wait for a future occasion.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

One reply on “Ursinus: Why Good Works are to be done, or why are they Necessary?”

“While good works playing a role in our assurance might be seen as controversial to some of the more Lutheran or neo-Orthodox schools of thought, it is not controversial among the Reformed (see Richard Muller’s recent discussion of the “practical syllogism” in his Calvin and the Reformed Tradition pgs. 244-276). But Ursinus’ final two points may strike some readers as controversial. He maintains that good works are done “that we may escape temporal and eternal punishment” and “that we may obtain from God… temporal and spiritual rewards…”

Interestingly, Martin Chemnitz also says basically the same regarding those “final two points.”

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